Welcome (back) to the discussion of Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce. This is the second part of a two part discussion between myself and Elizabeth from Earl Grey Editing. You can find part one of our discussion here and I recommend starting there if you haven’t arrived at my post through hers. (While you’re there, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the rest of her blog too because she’s awesome and it’s well worth your time.)
As Elizabeth mentions in her introduction, I put down Some Kind of Fairy Tale last year because it was the kind of book that, for me, would benefit from being read in a book club or as part of a buddy read. Elizabeth expressed a firm interest in reading and discussing it with me and so we did. I’ve had a blast and I hope she’s had one too. ^_^
First, for those who don’t know her, I’ll let Elizabeth introduce herself. She’s a very good friend of mine and a total sweetheart.
Hi, everyone! I’m Elizabeth, a writer, editor, binge reader, tabletop RPGer and tea addict. I’ve loved speculative fiction since I learned to read and have a Bachelor of Communication majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. I blog about books over at Earl Grey Editing. Although Lynn and I have known each other for years, this is the first time we’ve tried anything like this conversation. It was a total blast and I hope you enjoy it too.
As it’s always good to have a reminder of what the book is about, below is a description of the book. It’s provided courtesy of Amazon. (With some typo fixing, admittedly.)
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a very English story. A story of woods and clearings, a story of folk tales and family histories. It is as if Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris had written a Fairy Tale together.
It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phonecall from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she’s back, tired, dirty, dishevelled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent travelling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don’t quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter’s parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara’s one-time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it’s as if she’s off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family…
And with that, let’s get (back) to the discussion. Remember that if you haven’t read part one, that’s located here and I strongly recommend reading it first because we’ll be continuing straight where we left off and this discussion will pick up about partway through the book. THERE ARE SPOILERS. Of sorts. We don’t spoil the ending unless you’re really good at piecing plots together from very little information.
!!! THIS IS PART TWO OF OUR DISCUSSION. YOU CAN READ PART 1 HERE. !!!
!!! HERE BE SPOILERS. !!!
Lynn: I do have to say that something about Underwood’s povs has seemed off to me so far, but I can’t quite put my finger on why yet.
Elizabeth: There’s a definite discrepancy between his pov sections and how he appears in third person, at least initially. I felt a bit disenchanted when we actually started to hear from him directly.
Lynn: Disenchanted! There’s a perfect word for it! I wonder in how far that’s going to show up in the book beyond this point. Everyone seems disenchanted with everything, even the children. Though I think it’s most obvious with Richie, whose career is constantly framed as “Could have been a famous rock star and had it all, only he’s a washed up musician because things just never go right”. So far the book’s tried to ascribe that disenchantment to Tara’s disappearance. Things started to fall apart when she vanished and couldn’t get righted.
Elizabeth: I’m not sure I entirely agree that the book blames all of Richie’s disenchantment on Tara’s disappearance, though that event was certainly the trigger. But things were set up for a fall before that, especially considering what Richie’s home life was like. And there’s a sense that the police have been looking for an excuse to deal with Richie.
Lynn: And yet people do overcome home lives like Richie’s, so I’m not sure. Perhaps the book indeed doesn’t blame all of his disenchantment on Tara’s disappearance, but… That just doesn’t sit right with my read of it, I think. It’s like… Hmm… Think of it as a railway network, perhaps. Richie’s life was on one track, then Tara threw it onto another, and then when Tara disappeared, Richie’s life got thrown onto another track again. The disenchantments after her disappearance have little to do with Tara, but there was a very strong sense that his life would be entirely different if Tara hadn’t disappeared. Or, perhaps more accurately, that Richie believes this is so. (I freely admit I’m rubbish at unreliable narrators. I’m a very gullible reader.)
Also, yes, the police did sound like they were looking for an excuse to deal with Richie. I definitely agree there.
Elizabeth: Again, I think I have to disagree. Richie’s relationship with Tara was already very much falling apart before she disappeared. She makes it clear that in her mind they were over. Her disappearance simply took the disaster to a whole new level.
I found it kind of horrendous to see how obsessed with her he really was and I wonder whether maybe it was for the best that things went the way they did. I could easily see it might have devolved into an abusive relationship. And I think this ties in with an uneasy undertone of rape culture in the book. I’m thinking particularly of the way Tara rode off with Hiero. She gave consent, but it wasn’t really informed consent.
Lynn: Hmm… Good points. Although if I want to be pedantic, which I obviously do, I’ll repeat that I don’t think Richie agrees with you on their relationship. (I’m clearly missing something you’re seeing. *tries to poke at it* ^_^) And that’s… Part of that undercurrent there, I think, and part of the unreliability of all the narrators. In this case, especially Richie. In how far do you think Richie and Hiero are meant to be foils for one another in this?
Elizabeth: I definitely think they are foils for each other. Richie was about the furthest thing from romantic and gentlemanly as one can get (particularly since Tara was underage), yet still had Tara’s informed consent. Hiero on the other hand was a perfect gentleman, except he convinced Tara to come away with him without giving her the whole picture.
Lynn: And there’s also the recurring motif of what happened to Bridget Boland Cleary. (Which, notably, makes its first appearance as a children’s rhyme, an event already passed into story.)
Elizabeth: Interesting to note that the extracts relating to Bridget Boland Cleary always occur in chapters about Richie. As if they’re not unsettling enough.
Lynn: I admit that I’ve skimmed over most of the extracts, partially because I already know what happened. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention. They do so far seem to be appearing for chapters about Richie, yes, which is… very unsettling once you stop to think about it. And the book was already pretty unsettling. Add in your misgivings about the direction of their relationship before Tara vanished and… That’s truly creepy.
Elizabeth: I’m reminded that one of the first quotes in the book was from Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It only occurs to me now that Oberon and Titania were fighting over a child… though in a somewhat different way to Tara and Richie.
Lynn: It also occurs in Dell’s pov rather than anything to do with Tara and Richie, though I don’t think that invalidates the connection. The quote in question is “But we are spirits of another sort”, which is actually from a conversation with Puck. At the point Oberon utters this words, he’s realised that he’s made a mistake (Well, that Puck made a mistake.) and this mistake is in need of fixing. So that’s another layer to the quote beyond the fact that Oberon and Titania had a fight over a child. (Tellingly, it is Titania who gets enchanted much as it’s Tara who vanishes into Faerie.) Tara’s return could be Tara trying to fix her own mistakes, perhaps?
Elizabeth: That does seem to bear out in the remainder of the story, at least in relation to Richie.
Lynn: Hmmm… Taken with our discussion on the cycles between the women, I wonder whether that’s a broader theme. Like there is something ‘healing’ from the way the world works. (That would be very depressing to me, but there you go. I’ve seen other stories where the point is that the world is better off without fairies in it. Not sure that’s exactly the point here. It walks too fine balance for me to think it leans all the way to one side.)
Elizabeth: It is interesting that the story ultimately presents neither world as better–they each equally have their problems. Considering my original fears about the direction Tara and Richie’s relationship was headed and how it actually turned out, perhaps there’s something here about cycles of abuse, with each successive generation able to break free a little more. Though I think that’s getting away from the point you were trying to make. Perhaps it’s less that there’s something healing in the way the world works than in people taking responsibility.
Lynn: I like your interpretation of that much better. Good point. We definitely see almost everyone take up responsibility. Mrs Larwood reaching out to Tara, Jack owning up about the cat, Richie getting his life back together, Peter looking after Zoe in the epilogue. (Not that I think he didn’t before, but I do think the other times we’ve seen him act like a responsible father ended in him not managing well: such as when he goes drunk driving with Richie. He tries to be responsible — twice; once by calling a cab and once by wanting to own up to being the driver — but it fails both times. Not sure how her coming home late fits with that, though.)
Elizabeth: I think Peter’s lesson is less about claiming responsibility than about not being so judgemental. That was what destroyed his relationship with Richie and it was a fair way to destroying his relationship with Tara. When Zoe comes home late, we begin to see the same thing happening before Genevieve stops him and makes him listen to what Zoe is trying to say.
Lynn: I keep wanting to tie that into responsibility anyway, though I definitely do see your point and agree with it. He does learn to be less judgemental. I’m just not convinced it’s truly divorced from the theme of responsibility. By being less judgemental of people, Peter also has to allow people the chance to take up responsibility for themselves. And we can see that reflected nicely in the epilogue, I think, when he goes out to Zoe, tells her what to say next time, and then leaves that (seemingly) up to her.
Elizabeth: I think you’re right that Peter learning to be less judgemental also connects to responsibility. I think he learns to take responsibility for the negative impact of his propensity to be judgemental. He is forced to face how his words affected Richie. Part of this is due to Genevieve, who mostly acts as a sort of buffer (except when it comes to Tara, perhaps?) and encourages him to consider matters a little deeply.
Speaking of Genevieve, her conversation with Underwood was what made my disenchantment with the psychiatrist complete because it indicated his initial belief in Tara’s story was a ruse. I’m slightly amused by Genevieve’s expectation that Underwood will diagnose Tara with Narcissism when he’s the one that shows signs of it.
Lynn: Do you mean instances like when he dismisses the dentist records as subjective? It’s interesting to see us react differently to that chapter, though. I’m not sure it affected my sense of disenchantment much, though it adds another layer to the interpretation with Underwood being the one leaning to showing signs of Narcissism. There’s such a strong undercurrent of things not being as they seem…
I also wonder in how far that disenchantment hangs together with something from Tara’s pov in chapter 37. “The prosaic needs of day-to-day living blunted all impact of the miraculous; it demanded that the glorious be relegated”. I wouldn’t say I agree with that, but I can see the point in light of the book at least. That might help explain why the book’s relationship between the fantastical nature of what happened to Tara and her return to life with her family is so uneasy and strained. Like trying to pour a glassful of water into a thimble and expecting it not to spill over.
Elizabeth: Actually, I kind of think it’s the opposite. Throughout the whole story, the mundane sits alongside the miraculous. Peter and Genevieve’s discussion of fantastical events are frequently punctuated by interruptions from their kids. Likewise, the elder Martin household makes a very domestic setting for both Tara and Richie’s return (mostly through food). Even something as mundane as having mice in the kitchen gets turned into something miraculous.
Lynn: *flails at chapter 26* No, Underwood. No. SOMETIMES PEOPLE JUST DON’T HAVE ANY INTEREST IN SEX BECAUSE THEY DON’T. *flails* I don’t like him, Elizabeth. But then this is a point I’m particularly sensitive to. ASEXUAL AND DEMISEXUAL PEOPLE EXIST TOO. *grumps* And also asexuals and demisexuals who have mental health problems struggle to get the help they need because of attitudes like Underwood’s. I didn’t get the impression that that’s Tara, but Underwood’s tone just… really rubs me the wrong way. I’m sorry I’m not more coherent, but oh that chapter rubbed me so the wrong way.
Also I’ve read a fair number of selkie tales. I have yet to read one like he describes them generally being. Perhaps that’s due to reading them differently and having different experiences, though. What do you think?
Elizabeth: I haven’t read that many selkie tales but I can’t recall any matching his description and I rather think that’s the point. Up until this chapter, I was willing to play along with Underwood’s interpretations. However, they now feel like they’re beginning to fall apart and become more tenuous. I think this is due to a shift from Jungian psychology to Freudian. Underwood’s take on selkie legends as being solely about promiscuous female sexuality shows this shift, as does his views on Tara’s sexuality. This is going to unsettle most modern readers because Freud’s theories are out of fashion at best. It becomes a clever way for the author to undermine Underwood’s pov.
Lynn: Oh, good. I’m glad that’s not just me. I’m not entirely sure that it’s necessarily going to unsettle most readers, though. That requires more than a passing understanding of the theories of both. I’d say that’s an additional layer for those who have that, which is neat. ^_^ (I like layers.)
Elizabeth: What really puzzles me is Silkie’s presence in the first place. Is he there only as another foil for Hiero? Indeed, Hiero seems perfectly civilised in comparison. But that gets broken later. We are told at one point that Silkie has become Tara’s guardian but there’s no evidence of that in the rest of the story… unless one takes into account the mysterious narrator.
Lynn: Hmmm. Good point.
What did you make of Richie’s tumor disappearing? That strikes me as one of the most hard-to-dismiss fantastical elements of the story. Outside of the events that happened to Tara, but I feel like the narrative continuously asks us to take that with a grain of salt, while asking us to accept Tara’s Charming of the mice and the disappearance of the tumour as factual if implausible.
Elizabeth: I am amused by the way the story ultimately uses science–and medicine in particular–to convince its readers of Tara’s story. It’s not just the tumour, but also the x-rays of her teeth. I think one of the earliest things that convinced me Tara’s story was truth was Mrs Larwood, particularly when she expresses interest in meeting Tara. That interest created a connection between them and from there it wasn’t difficult to spot the parallels between Tara’s eyes and Mrs Larwood’s cataracts.
Lynn: That’s part of the mix, though, isn’t it? If you’re blending the fantastical with the mundane, science and medicine — the areas considered most resistant against magical things as being fantastical or miraculous, but bound to find a rational explanation for something — are going to be a powerful factor in making something sound plausible. After all, if they make the implausible sound credible and true… Then it must be true. They’d disprove the tale otherwise.
Elizabeth: Yes. I’ve enjoyed the way the book has shown science and magic not to be in opposition, despite first appearances.
Lynn: The quotations used at the beginning of chapters were interesting too. Those are always used for a reason, usually because they relate to the chapter somehow, but it felt like there was a particular pattern in them to both of us. I’m still not entirely sure what it is. But initially we thought the transcripts about Bridget Cleary only showed up in relation to Richie and that subtly changed. The fictional quotations slowly became more modern too.
Elizabeth: It was appropriate that there was a subtle change in how the Bridget Cleary quotes were attributed because I feel it mimicked the change in abusive figures. Initially, that looked to be Richie, with his violent temper, drug use and obsession with Tara. However, gradually we see how he has mellowed out and his obsession eases, no longer fuelled by youthful hormones. He gets replaced as an abusive figure and therefore the quotes no longer fit in so neatly with his sections.
Similarly, perhaps the modernising of the quotes reflects the way the cast as a whole slowly leave the past behind and gain a better acceptance of the present.
Lynn: Ooooooooooh… You’re so much better at English lit essaying than I am. <3 I like that interpretation. ^_^ What’s interesting to me is that a lot of the modern quotations are all from fantasy and science fiction authors: Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin, A.S. Byatt, Terri Windling… We do find some older quotations and some nonfiction quotations, but by and large they’re from authors. So perhaps there’s an element of accepting the miraculous to it as well as accepting the present.
Elizabeth: Well said. I think you’ve just proved that neither of us are better than the other at English lit essaying. We simply have different strengths and see things in slightly different ways. I think that’s what has made this whole exercise so fun.
Lynn: You’re too kind. <3 I’m glad to hear you had fun, though! I’ve loved talking about the book with you. I’m still not entirely sure I like the book very much more than I did in November, but this was a blast and I certainly grew to appreciate it more. ^_^
I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading our discussion as much as we’ve enjoyed having it! At the risk of repeating myself too much, if you haven’t read part one yet and want to, that’s located here.